The Bible was a basic reference point for Eliot. In his early poetry (1909–1926), it appears in allusions; in his late poetry and plays (1927–1958), it is often mediated through the Book of Common Prayer. In his early prose, it is present in a few oblique allusions; in his late prose, it is quoted and discussed. The shift, generally associated with his baptism (29 June 1927), can be suggested by poems written immediately before and after his conversion. In The Hollow Men (1925), the epigraph “A penny for the Old Guy” is not only a reference to Guy Fawkes Day but a theological pun suggesting the death of the old Eliot. In “Salutation” (1927), the new Eliot greets the Virgin (and the reader).
Eliot explained his attitude toward the Bible shortly after his return to Harvard to give the 1932–1933 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. In “The Bible as Scripture and as Literature,” he discussed the movement inaugurated by Richard Moulton at the turn of the century and defended by Charles Dinsmore in The English Bible as Literature (1931). His thesis, repeated in “Religion and Literature” (1935), is that “The Bible has had a literary influence … not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered as … the Word of God. And the fact that men of letters now discuss it as ‘literature’ probably indicates the end of its ‘literary’ influence’ ” (p. 390). He remarked that his own allusions to the Bible had been predicated on the conviction that it was a sacred book.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Eliot’s first flowering occurred during his student years at Harvard. In 1909–1911, he wrote several poems featuring a Hamlet-like character, most notably J. Alfred Prufrock, paralyzed by psychological and spiritual conflicts. Prufrock justifies his inaction in the language of Ecclesiastes: “A time to be born, and a time to die; … a time to keep silence and a time to speak” (3:1–8, KJV). Prufrock’s variation expresses both tedium and a capacity for violence: “There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; / There will be time to murder and create” (ll. 26–28). In an allusion to John the Baptist (Matt 14:1–12), Prufrock imagines himself as simultaneously a martyr and a nobody: “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter, / I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter” (ll. 82–83). Like John, whose “head was brought on a charger [platter] and given to the damsel” (14:11), Prufrock imagines himself victimized by female whims.
Equally powerful is his identification with Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). In response to the rich man’s request that the beggar be sent to warn his brothers, Abraham says, “they will not be persuaded, though one return from the dead.” Confined in the hell of self-consciousness, Prufrock muses: Shall I “say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all’ ” (ll. 90–95).
The knowledge of the Bible that Eliot brought to his early poems came less from personal study than from his family and church. Unlike many Unitarians, the family patriarch William Greenleaf Eliot accepted the Bible “as the record of God’s revelations to men and the sufficient rule of faith and practice” (Holt, 1985, p. 91).
“The Hippopotamus”; “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service.”
In June 1915, a year into the Great War, Eliot married and settled in London. Between 1917 and 1921, he wrote several poems that convey the pain of a failed marriage and a shattered civilization. These poems, which culminate in The Waste Land (1922), are rich in biblical allusions. The earliest, “The Hippopotamus” (1917) and “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” (1918), are anti-clerical satires. The first has an epigraph from Colossians 4:16: “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans.” This points both to the epistle itself, which warns against “philosophy and vain deceit” (2:8), and to the letter to the church of Laodiceia (Rev 3:14–19): “because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.” In a brilliant conceit, Eliot contrasts the “True Church,” consisting of Laodicean theologians, with a muddy hippo who is “merely flesh and blood.” The climax depicts the hippo “Ascending from the damp savannas” while “the True Church remains below / Wrapt in the old miasmal mist,” an allusion to Matthew 24:40–41: “Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken and the other left.” The raptured hippo, washed in the “Blood of the Lamb” and made “as white as snow” (Rev 7:14; Isa 1:18), is kissed by martyred virgins.
“Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” focuses on subtle exegetes of John 1 who subvert its essence by rejecting the body. “In the beginning was the Word. / Superfetation of τὸ ἕν [the One], / And at the mensual turn of time / Produced enervate Origen.” The learned Origen, who reputedly castrated himself to mortify his flesh, is juxtaposed to an anonymous artist who shows the “unoffending feet” of Jesus in the waters of baptism (Matt 3:13–17). The poem ends with a sudden shift to a contemporary “Sunday morning service,” a parody in which a modern skeptic “shifts from ham to ham / Stirring the water in his bath.”
“Gerontion” and The Waste Land.
“Gerontion” (1919) and The Waste Land (1922) share as context the devastation of Europe in World War I (1914–1918). “Gerontion” consists of the musings of an old thinker whose roots stretch back to Socrates. The theme is decay; the main symbol is a dying man in a “draughty house” (l. 32) that the wind reduces to “fractured atoms” (l. 69). The Waste Land consists of fragments of shattered lives and culture—“These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (l. 431)—connected by an image of a mythical land cursed for the sins of its ruler and the passivity of its people. The image evokes the barren land of the Western Front and the spiritual aridity of life.
The richest biblical cluster in “Gerontion” is:
Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign!”The word within a word, unable to speak a word,Swaddled with darkness.
The allusions are mediated through a Christmas sermon (1618) by Lancelot Andrewes, whose text is: “And this shall be a sign … : Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddlng clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). His theme is that the “Word without a word,” often taken for a wonder, is actually a sign. Andrewes quotes the Pharisees’ demand for a sign, to which Jesus responded: “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, and … no sign shall be given but the sign of … Jonah” (Matt 12:38–40). Eliot’s “word within a word … swaddled in darkness” is one of many demythologized fragments of the Logos in the muddled mind of the decrepit speaker, a symbol of Western civilization in extremis.
The Waste Land is framed by allusions to the Prophets and the Gospels. In the first part, Eliot draws on Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Ecclesiastes to evoke the image of the waste land; in the last, he creates a montage of the final days of Jesus. The first description of a literal waste land appears in the second verse paragraph.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches growOut of this stony rubbish. Son of man,You cannot say, or guess, for you know onlyA heap of broken images, where the sun beats,And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,And the dry stone no sound of water.
The main allusion is to the prophet Ezekiel, whom the Lord often addressed as the “son of man.” As one of the exiles carried into Babylon, he reminded his compatriots of sin and its consequences. “In your dwelling places the cities shall be laid waste, … your idols be broken … your images cut down” (6:4–6). In subsequent lines, Eliot adds echoes of Isaiah.
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)And I will show you something different from eitherYour shadow at morning striding behind youOr your shadow at evening rising to meet you;I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The contrasting vision of Isaiah—“a king shall reign in righteousness, … and a man shall be like … the shadow of a great rock in a weary land” (32:1–2)—hovers but is not realized. Eliot also alludes to the splendid poem in Ecclesiastes 12:1–7. In old age, “men shall be afraid … the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail” (12:5). “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God, who gave it” (12:7). The allusions to the prophets, like those to the waste land myth, resonate thematically with the postwar desolation.
In part V, Eliot synthesizes the Gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus from Gethsemane to Emmaus. He evokes the agony, betrayal, arrest, interrogation, trial, crucifixion, and earthquake that followed.
After the torchlight red on sweaty facesAfter the frosty silence in the gardensAfter the agony in stony placesThe shouting and the cryingPrison and palace and reverberationOf thunder of spring over distant mountains.
Eliot’s economy and fidelity to the Gospels are striking. Judas arrived with men carrying “lanterns and torches and weapons” (John 18:3). The betrayal was in a garden and the interrogation in a palace; crowds shouted and women cried; the Crucifixion was on stony Golgotha and Jerusalem sits among mountains.
In the climax of the Passion montage, Eliot alludes to the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.
Who is the third who walks always beside you?When I count, there are only you and I togetherBut when I look ahead up the white roadThere is always another one walking beside youGliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hoodedI do not know whether a man or a woman
Eliot’s note points to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s account of his last Antarctic expedition, in which he and two companions trekked for months through a white waste land. Shackleton recalled that he sensed the presence of a fourth person, but when he counted, there were only three. At the end of the ordeal, he was surprised to hear his companions say that there had been a fourth person walking beside them (1920, p. 211). Shackleton associated the fourth with Providence, and Eliot associates Shackleton’s ghostly companion with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–32). Of these lines, Eliot notes: “In my mind,” the “hooded figure” on the road to Emmaus is connected to the “Hanged God of Frazer” and to the missing card in the fortune-telling scene in part I—“I do not find the Hanged Man” (ll. 54–55).
“Journey of the Magi”; Ash-Wednesday.
Following his baptism in June 1927, Eliot wrote several works commenting on “the time of tension between dying and birth” (Ash-Wednesday VI). In August, he published “Journey of the Magi,” and a year later, “A Song for Simeon,” both renditions of familiar Christmas stories. Within months, he began Ash-Wednesday, a Lenten sequence anchored in liturgy and scriptures. In 1934, to raise money for building churches in London, he wrote The Rock, a pageant play on church history. And in 1935, using parallels between the martyrdom of Thomas Becket and the suffering of Christ, he wrote Murder in the Cathedral. Both from the works themselves and from Eliot’s annotated Bibles (Houghton Library, Harvard; King’s College, Cambridge), it is evident that his writing is now informed by Bible study and participation in Anglican services. These works are replete with echoes of the Bible and Prayer Book.
“Journey” is a dramatic monologue designed to bring the story told in Matthew 2:1–12 to life, not as rendered on Christmas cards, but as it must have been in fact. As in “Gerontion,” the poem is mediated through Bishop Andrewes, from whose 1622 Christmas sermon Eliot’s first five lines are adapted. The speaker, near death, is one of the magi recalling his journey to honor an unknown infant king. The theme, both for the magus and the poet, is the pain of deep and relatively sudden spiritual reorientation. In the first stanza, the magus recalls the arduous journey across the mountains; in the second, he tells what he saw in Jerusalem and Bethlehem “a long time ago”; and in the last, back in his own country, he reflects on his experience.
In the central stanza, Eliot telescopes the Incarnation, betrayal, Crucifixion, and Second Coming by juxtaposing images fixed in the old man’s memory. Descending below the snow line, he saw “three trees on the low sky” (Luke 23:32–33) and “an old white horse” in the meadow (Rev 6:2; 19:11–14); arriving at a tavern, he glimpsed “hands … dicing for pieces of silver,” an allusion to the betrayal of Jesus and the dicing for his garments at the Crucifixion (Matt 26:14–15; 27:35). In this ironic rendering of Epiphany, the magus, suspended between dispensations, longs to die.
Several streams of biblical allusions coalesce in Ash-Wednesday:
- (1) the account of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness (Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13), commemorated during Lent;
- (2) readings for Ash Wednesday in the Book of Common Prayer, including Psalm 51; and
- (3) texts discussed on Ash Wednesday (1603, 1619) by Andrewes.
The primary motif is exile and return, reflected in both biblical and secular allusions. The sequence depicts the exile’s meditation on the difficult turning involved in returning—to childhood, America, first love, and to God. The theme is emphasized in parts I, III, and VI: “Because I do not hope to turn again”(I), “At the first turning of the second stair” (III), and “Although I do not hope to turn again” (VI). A crucial background text, included in the Prayer Book and Andrewes, is: “Therefore … saith the LORD, turn even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping … rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD, … for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. … Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing” (Joel 2:12–14).
Four Quartets (1935–1942) consists of four meditations—Burnt Norton (BN ), East Coker (EC ), The Dry Salvages (DS ), and Little Gidding (LG )—on the intersection of the timeless with time. The individual poems, named for particular places and aligned with the seasons and elements, are structurally and thematically parallel. The religious content, universal at first, coalesces through allusions to the Bible, Prayer Book, and mystical texts such as Julian of Norwich’s Showings, into a revelation of the Incarnation. “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation” (DS V).
The Quartets brim with biblical themes and echoes. Part I of each is a meditation on time, often using biblical language, as in “there is a time for building … / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane” (EC I; Ecc 3:1). Part II of each contains a formal lyric, often with doctrinal overtones, as in the elegy for men lost at sea that modulates into the “barely prayable / Prayer of the one Annunciation” (DS II; Luke 1:26–38). Part III uses a journey motif to suggest a descent into the self, often accompanied by kenosis (self-emptying; Phil 2:7) followed by waiting (Ps 27:14; Isa 40:31). “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope … wait without love … Wait without thought” (EC III). Part IV is a lyric: in the third Quartet, a prayer to the Virgin (DS IV); in East Coker, a Good Friday meditation featuring an image of Christ as a “wounded surgeon” and the church as a “dying nurse” whose mission is “to remind of our, and Adam’s curse.” This mini-allegory ends with a Eucharistic prescription: “The dripping blood our only drink, / The bloody flesh our only food” (EC IV). For the wartime theodicy in Little Gidding IV, Eliot superimposes an image of Pentecostal tongues of flame (Acts 2:3) and flames shooting from German bombers: “The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror” (LG IV). Part V of each combines a meditation on art, “Words move, music moves / Only in time,” that modulates into a mediation on the Logos, “The Word in the desert … attacked by voices of temptation” (BN V).
Translation: New English Bible.
In the 1940s and 1950s, as part of a public conversation regarding new translations of the Bible, Eliot expressed three major concerns. The first regards the stated goal of emerging translations: making the Bible “easy” for persons whose grasp of English is poor. In a 1949 letter to the editor of Theology, he wrote: “To make a more intelligible translation should mean to make a translation which can be understood by those capable of understanding; it should not mean … to make a translation which is easy to understand. For there is a great deal in the Bible which can never be made easy except by evacuation of content.”
His second concern regards the stylistic impoverishment resulting from the desire to make the Authorised Version more readable. In a 1962 essay on the New English Bible, he pointed out that where the AV has “cast not your pearls before swine” (Matt 7:6), the NEB has “do not feed your pearls to pigs.” Eliot deplored the loss of beauty, clarity, and accuracy in the substitution of “pigs” for “swine” and of “feed” for “cast” which make “the figure of speech ludicrous … for even the youngest and most illiterate know that [pigs] cannot be nourished on pearls.”
Eliot’s third concern has to do with fidelity to the ancient text, and in a series of letters to editors, he focused on the nuances of Greek words such as parthenos, which the AV translates “virgin” and the NEB translates “girl” (Luke 1:27).
Eliot’s esteem for the Bible remained unabated at his death on 4 January 1965.
[See also MODERN LITERATURE.]
- Eliot, T. S. “The Bible as Scripture and as Literature.” Houghton Library, Harvard, Cambridge, Mass.: bMS Am 1691 (26). An unpublished address given at King’s College Chapel (Boston) to the Unitarian Women’s Alliance, 1 December 1932.
- Eliot, T. S. “Basic Revelation.” New English Weekly 19, no. 10 (26 June 1941): 101–102. Review essay of the New Testament in Basic English. Focus: the compromises involved in producing a New Testament in a vocabulary of 1,000 words in which verbs are reduced to 16.
- Eliot, T. S. “Religion and Literature” (1935). In Selected Essays, pp. 388–401. London: Faber and Faber, 1941. Effect in literary history of reading the Bible as the Word of God in contrast to reading it as literature.
- Eliot, T. S. Complete Poems and Plays: 1909–1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1952.
- Eliot, T. S. Letters to editor: Theology 52 (September 1949): 336–338; Times Literary Supplement 3087 (28 April 1961): 263.
- Eliot, T. S. “On the Language of the New English Bible.” Sunday Telegraph, 16 December 1962, p. 7. Response to “New Translation of the Bible” by George S. Hendry in the June issue. Focus: evaluation of proposal for a translation in today’s language for today’s people for use in worship and instruction.
- Holt, Earl K. William Greenleaf Eliot: Conservative Radical. St. Louis, Mo.: First Unitarian Church, 1985. Six essays on the life and character of T. S. Eliot’s grandfather, a Unitarian minister, philanthropist, and founder of Washington University.
- Shackleton, Ernest. South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914–1917. New York: Macmillan, 1920. Shackleton’s memoir of a ghostly presence on white waste land, alluded to in The Waste Land.
- Blamires, Harry. Word Unheard: Guide through Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” London: Methuen, 1969. A close reading of the poem by a theologically informed critic.
- Dinsmore, Charles Allen. The English Bible as Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.
- Eliot, T. S. “Lancelot Andrewes” (1926). In Selected Essays, pp. 341–353. London: Faber and Faber, 1941.
- Jain, Manju. A Critical Reading of “The Selected Poems” of T. S. Eliot. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991. Identifies allusions of selected poems, including The Waste Land and Ash-Wednesday.
- Moulton, Richard. The Literary Study of the Bible. London: Isbister, 1896.
- Moulton, Richard, ed. The Modern Reader’s Bible: The Books of the Bible with Three Books of the Apocrypha, Presented in Modern Literary Form. New York: Macmillan, 1922.
- Spurr, Barry. “Anglo-Catholic in Religion”: T. S. Eliot and Christianity. Cambridge, U.K.: Lutterworth, 2010. A study of Eliot’s postconversion writing in the context of Anglo-Catholicism.
- Warner, Martin. “Reading the Bible ‘as the report of the Word of God’: The Case of T. S. Eliot.” Christianity and Literature 61, no. 4 (Summer 2012): 543–564. Eliot’s relation to the Bible as literature movement. Excellent bibliography.
Jewel Spears Brooker